Huzzah! My rad east coast ally Arielle returns with another insightful contribution, this time reviewing the Corcoran Gallery’s exhibit, Pump Me Up: D.C. Subculture of the 1980s. Read on, be amazed, comment with your thoughts- you know the drill.
So the idea of a prestigious art gallery laying claim to and displaying artifacts from the 1980s, artifacts that were often defined by galleries before as distinctively “not art,” that idea makes me really uncomfortable. And it should make me uncomfortable, because the intersection of art gallery culture and underground art movements (such as graffiti, punk, and go-go) makes for a really strange, surreal experience.
For instance, at the very front of the Corcoran Gallery’s next exhibit Pump Me Up, there is a fake boarded up door covered in fake posters and fake graffiti, bordered by fake “police line do not cross” tape, to create the look of a derelict building. I wondered who got paid to set up that fake door and how much they made, and thought about how inauthentic and removed from reality it is— I mean, you can’t really recreate a feeling of racial tension or frustration at the government decades afterwards. Then there’s the fact that you have people paying $10 each to see what is essentially a bunch of old show fliers, photos, and a piece of paper from Ian McKaye’s notebook. I mean, couldn’t you just knock on Ian Mckaye’s door and ask to rifle around his old shoeboxes and have basically the same experience for free?
And surely none of the artists in the exhibit ever anticipated this kind of attention— not that they don’t deserve it, but I feel like the values of some of those groups were very much against rich white art gallery culture. Gallery culture epitomizes everything that political activists and groups like Minor Threat were against—it’s elitist, fairly conservative, often censored, and all about how much money and influence you have.
So the main question I have about the exhibition is this: Is the Corcoran redeeming itself and art gallery culture by “recognizing” and giving voice to previously ignored forms of art, or is this just a lazy way to capitalize on nostalgia? (Hint: answer is open ended).
Anyway, first I’ll talk about what I think they got right: historical context. I can’t really accuse them of completely giving over to nostalgia because they made it crystal clear that D.C. was a hard place to live in the 1980s. They talked about the influence of PCP and government corruption (Oh hey there, Marion Barry), but it was way more nuanced than “a lot of black people were doing drugs and killing.” They discussed the high murder rate, but they also noted that D.C. had the highest rate of police officers killing citizens at that point, which no doubt contributed to it. And they talked about how Reganomics resulted in severe cuts to programs for the homeless and job loss, which in turn leads to an increase in the drug trade.
Also, for people like me who weren’t even alive during the 1980s, just being able to see cultural artifacts from that time is really exciting. I remember seething with envy when my high school English teacher mentioned that he had a constant ringing noise in his ears from one too many Bad Brains concerts—at the time, it seemed like a totally fair trade off to me. I knew I’d never be able to experience that time period, but grew up loving the music and culture just the same. So I thought it was pretty cool to see originals of punk, go-go, and graffiti work up close. And I’m clearly not the only one—both showings of the documentary on graffiti artist Cool “Disco” Dan sold out, as well as the opening night party, and it looks like the exhibit has been hugely popular in general. And, to be fair, the curators had a really amazing amount of stuff to work with—the resurgence of go-go music, the birth of hardcore music and straight edge, a diverse and energized punk community, young graffiti artists and the mystery of Cool “Disco” Dan— it was certainly an exciting time to live in D.C., if not an easy one. The exhibit also did a good job of showing how events were happening at the same time, or overlapped (Minor Threat playing with go-go bands, for example).
Ok, now for what they could’ve done better. First, for an exhibit that was largely about music, there was NO MUSIC! There were a few TVs playing footage of concerts with headphones attached but seriously, what a huge failure. The exhibit was also fairly small for what it was supposed to encompass. For most topics, there was no more than a sentence about the subject, and the sentences seemed like they were all taken from Wikipedia. Also, as mentioned before, it was sometimes cool to see what events were taking place at the same time, but sometimes that was overwhelming—it came off like “oh straight edge happened and then people did graffiti and oh then the Redskins finally won something!” I was disappointed the most by the graffiti section. I wanted to know everything about crews and individual artists and how the D.C. style differed from other areas, but there was hardly anything about it.
I kept thinking how I would’ve curated the exhibit, given the chance. I asked myself what I would’ve tried to answer for the audience. Where are all these people now? How can we include the community in this exhibit? How can we talk about art as a response to power while recognizing that art galleries have a certain amount of power to them? What kind of narratives can/should the exhibit create? What do we want the audience to take away besides nostalgia and longing?
Just some food for thought. I don’t have any hard and fast answers, but I think it’s worth discussing. If you’re in D.C. before April 7th I’d recommend checking out the exhibit and deciding for yourself. If you can’t make it but are interested in in D.C. punk/hardcore, allow me to recommend the following things:
• Banned in D.C. by Cynthia Connolly– The best book on the D.C. scene and probably one of the best photo books on punk too.
• This article on that book: by Osa Atoe, also there are many issues of her amazing zine Shotgun Seamstress about the D.C. punk scene.
• These fliers.
• Polly by Amy Bryant– highly underrated semi-autobiographical fiction about a girl in the D.C. 80s punk scene.
• Punk Love by Susie Horgan— all the famous photos of Ian McKaye and that goof from Black Flag…
Thanks Arielle! Cool/sharp per usual.
RIYL this review: Punk at the Met.